Conflicts. Politics. Construction. Privacy. Obsession. The case of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw Ana Janevski

Art museums are created from various needs, from the attempt to establish symbolic power through the construction of national identity to economically calculated, investor-attracting strategies.

A belief in the power of museums, which are considered probably the best places to reflect political issues, can often be compromised. A good example of this is the difficult relations cultural institutions have with the chaotic realities of the “maturing” Eastern European democracies. One might get the impression that the initiation of new artistic institutions in Eastern Europe has very often been a side effect of complex transformational processes. New institutions have to face overwhelming public expectations, thus generating tensions and manifesting unsolvable problems and antagonism. Museums of art, and particularly museums of contemporary art, are a magnifying glass through which we can watch the rising demons, social frustrations, and repressed yearnings typical of so-called transitional countries.

While in so-called Western Europe art institutions have well-defined models of functioning and patterns of infrastructure thanks to the tradition of national museums and the accumulation of capital, the situation in postcommunist countries is usually much more precarious. Particularly since 1989, every new art institution which has been established has been compelled to conceive its own operational model, in a very specific context. Nevertheless, the instability and insecurity are fertile ground for more radical and experimental approaches.

An example of such an institution, a consequence of posttransformation ambitions and the need to fill cultural gaps (characteristic of former Soviet bloc countries) is the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, officially created in 2005.1 Long before the erection of the building itself (planned for 2014) the museum became the stage for a bitter conflict without precedent in postwar Poland. Thus the title of the book by Christian Kerez, the architect of the Warsaw museum, is Conflicts. Politics. Construction. Privacy. Obsession,2 and this is what I have taken for the title of my text.

The museum building is to be erected in the very heart of the city, in front of the Palace of Culture and Science. This mammoth iconic building was built in 1955 as a “gift of Stalin to the Polish people.” Even though modern office skyscrapers surround the Palace nowadays, it is still perceived as a symbol of Soviet domination and oppression. Hence, the erection of a museum building in front of the Palace of Culture and Science roused expectations of a new iconic building able to compete with the old communist legacy, to make a radical break with the communist past, and to become a potential catharsis for the city. As was clearly articulated in the regulations of the international architectural competition, the new building was supposed to “represent a counterpoint to the Palace of Culture and become an internationally recognizable new symbol of Warsaw.” Consequently, when it was announced that the design by the Swiss architect Christian Kerez had won the competition, the public disappointment was enormous. Kerez’ horizontal, minimalistic, and moderate concrete building was considered to be too close to communism. The museum competition provoked major discussions and debates, revealing different visions that go beyond the issue of the building.3 Furthermore, the museum project on the Plac Defilad (Defilad Square) is part of an ambitious plan to reconfigure the square as the fulcrum of the revitalized center of Warsaw.

In June 2007, a new director was appointed, Joanna Mytkowska, one of the founders of the Foksal Gallery Foundation in the late 1990s. “The Museum was provided with a temporary residence in a former warehouse for a furniture shop on the adjacent Panska Street; the warehouse was situated inside a block of flats from the 1970s, very close to the future Museum’s location.”

As was mentioned earlier, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw is not a result of an accumulation of capital in the hands of the bourgeoisie. It is being created in the entirely different postegalitarian conditions of the Polish transformation and is to be, as we see it, an important element of emancipation. For all of us involved in the project, it is also evident that the museum is established not on consensus but on conflict, antagonistic forces, and confrontation. Thus, we were aware from the beginning that the programming has to be responsive to social changes, to the (communist) past, and to the diversity of the public sphere, in order to produce new forms of knowledge about the conflicted society that surrounds it.

The pronouns “we” and “our” occur very frequently in the previous sentences. They concern our thoughts about the museum, in other words, what we think as a team—the director, the people who collaborate with us, those who offer their ideas, those who propose joint efforts and support. So the curatorial position and role is also revisited and is constantly being redefined. However, the temporal space of the museum is a significant one and demands innovative “curatorial “methods.” But what do those innovative methods consist of in the aforementioned context? They certainly relate to the exhibition program, collection, audience-public, etc., as well.

The first exhibition, As Soon as I Open My Eyes I See a Film—Experiments in Yugoslav Art in the 1960s and 1970s, stressed the importance of working on the history of Eastern Europe. The trigger for the exhibition was a research project about the activities of cinema clubs in former Yugoslavia.

The exhibition was an important starting point, followed by a show by Romanian conceptual artist Ion Grigorescu and Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow. In the case of Grigorescu, important work has been done on researching archives and reediting his film, while Alina Szapocznikow, who has been recognized internationally only recently, has been put into a larger context with other female artists of her generation like Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois.

Along the same lines, a seminar took place in summer 2008 dealing with the legacy of the years 1968 and 1989 and their significance for artistic theories and practices in (Eastern) Europe. Piotr Piotrowski delivered a lecture on two attitudes—traumatophobia and traumatophilia4—that characterize Eastern Europe’s newly founded art institutions. He concluded that the future Warsaw museum is a special case and does not easily fit either category: it reveals the soft passage from communism to postcommunism in Poland. Since communism for the Poles was not as traumatic as it was for other people from the Eastern bloc, the collective memory of the past in this country, to which the history of art belongs, is not traumatic either. If we can speak about the trauma here, it is rather the trauma of the “big change,” or the trauma of the “transitional period,” with the huge wave of poverty and unemployment that emerged as a result of the neoliberal policies of the 1990s.

The example of the Warsaw museum is also strictly connected with the widely discussed issue of the aforementioned iconic museum building that was supposed to solve the traumas of the past. The expectations that Christian Kerez’s design for the museum building would be a counterbalance to the surrounding architecture and planning have actually dissipated. Kerez’s project does not compete with the Palace of Culture and Science, it does not suppress nor overwork the past; rather, it is a correspondence.

Although at this moment, when the “former West” is the subject of studies and researches and Eastern Europe has become a contentious notion, one that is often criticized, there is still a lack of proper research on many aspects of the region. To date, the writing of history and memory has been undertaken mostly from outside the region. Now there is a new generation of curators capable of conducting research,5 giving new angles and perspectives, and writing their own history and narratives. Moreover, to research the turn it took in the 1960s and 1970s provides a kind of motor for our thinking. The paradigmatic shifts that occurred at that time in artistic and exhibition practices are an important source for curatorial work and methods.

Although the situation was different in each country, we found it important to evaluate institutionally the artistic practices of that period in Eastern Europe in the field of museum collection, exhibition programs, theoretical interpretations, archives, and knowledge bases.


1 / For more see: Sebastian Cichocki, “Museum as a Side Effect, Or Warsaw Problems with Memory,” Idea arts+society 30–31 (2008), p. 114–119.

2 / Moritz Kueng (ed.), Christian Kerez: Conflicts. Politics. Construction. Privacy. Obsession, Materials on The work of Christian Kerez, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2008.

3 / Marcel Andino Velez, “Supermarket of the Avant-Garde,” Christian Kerez: Conflicts. Politics. Construction. Privacy. Obsession, Materials on The work of Christian Kerez, ed. Moritz Kueng, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2008.

4 / Strategies vis-à-vis the communist past are regarded as traumatophobic when there is a tendency to forget the traumatic condition rather than analyze it. This approach is supported by the mainstream international exhibition program. A case in point is the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, situated in a part of the former People’s Palace.

Other examples are the KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn, placed in an entire new building in the park outside the city, and the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius, situated in the former Soviet Museum of Revolution. These are cases of traumatophiliac approaches to the past. The museum’s policies include a collection of socialist realism from the Soviet era. Working over the traumatic past is constitutive of the creation of historical memory and of the construction of a national identity.

5 / A few examples are the projects “Political Practices of (Post) Yugoslav Art”—an outcome of collaboration between several independent organizations, collectives, and individuals which operate in the area of former Yugoslavia, and whose activities include researching the Yugoslav heritage in art and culture—and “Art Always has its Consequences.” See: